If saving money on groceries is on your radar right now, or just saving money in general, you are not alone. The escalating cost of groceries is a concern shared by many.
Lowering your grocery bills might seem like a daunting task, especially if you’re unsure where to begin. In fact, after rent or mortgage payments, food expenses are the next biggest budget item for most people. Yes, getting organized with food spending can be a time consuming task for sure. Unlike rent, mortgage, or other fixed expenses, our food spending is typically not a fixed amount each month or one that we track (all those impromptu trips to the store during the week, spending on takeout and restaurant meals….it adds up quickly). The good news is If you’re trying to save money in your overall budget, focusing on your food spending is a brilliant place to start. You most likely can find meaningful extra savings just be implementing a few simple tactics.
This very real challenge brought me to start The Dinner Daily. It all began when I was on a mission to solve two real challenges in my family’s daily life: how to make the daily dinner challenge less stressful and rein in our out of control food costs. As a mom of three young children and with a demanding job as a CPA, our weeknights were too often a whirlwind. And our grocery bills? Out of control. Our dinners were not relaxed, we were overspending on food due to disorganization, and I was not always proud of the meals I was putting on the table. I knew I wanted better.
The turning point was on a cold February snow day when we were all home without a plan for dinner, and going to the grocery store in a blizzard was not an option. I decided enough was enough, and the days of being disorganized with dinner and overspending on groceries were over. For the first time, I started meal planning as if I was on a mission…and I was! The planning involved a few different layers, but it was customized for my family and leveraged what was on special at my local grocery store.
And the results were so exciting! The savings were far greater than I had ever anticipated -we saved $347 in the first month! More importantly, dinner time was happier, I was less stressed (and therefore able to engage in more meaningful conversations with my children), and the meals were healthy and wholesome – meals I felt good to put on my children’s plates. The feeling of knowing what was for dinner Monday to Friday at the start of the week, with everything in the house ready to go, was too good to go back to my old disorganized ways. I was hooked! (And The Dinner Daily was born!)
The exact strategies I used, and became the basis for developing our meal planning software at The Dinner Daily, are outlined below.
Whether you’re a budget-conscious individual or a busy family, these tips are universally applicable. We all need to eat, and we all know the importance of cooking at home for our health. Implementing these strategies, or even adopting just a few, might get you hooked on the benefits of meal planning too!
Here was my process:
Step #1: The Turning Point: Getting Organized and Planning the Week
Creating a weekly meal plan is one of the most critical parts of saving money on groceries. If you are serious about lowering your grocery bills, you must embrace this step. If you have never been a meal planner (I certainly wasn’t before starting The Dinner Daily), it might feel daunting at first. However, I am convinced that once you begin to experience the benefits in your day to day life, you too will be hooked on how much easier life will be with a plan in place. Here’s why:
- A well thought out plan for your meals for the whole week will save you money, time, and stress. You will also eat healthier meals more consistently since you will avoid the last-minute dinner panic and the pitfalls of expensive and less-than-healthy takeout.
- Having a plan also makes grocery shopping less of a chore, whether in-store or online. Gone are the days of wandering through the aisles and tossing random items into the cart. Having an organized list saves a ton of time.
Compare the above to figuring out meals on the fly and the stress that brings to your day (i.e., it’s 5 pm, and the inevitable question of….” What are we doing for dinner?” will be coming!). Winging it makes life more complicated and usually more expensive. Why do that to yourself? While adapting to planned meals might take some getting used to, remember that habit formation takes time – research suggests around 66 days.
Step #2: The Secret Weapon: the Sales Flyer
Next, since saving money on groceries was also one of my main objectives, I pulled out the weekly sales flyer from my local grocery store and made it an integral part of the planning process. In the past, this was just thrown in the recycling bin without a second thought. Now, I saw that humble little sales flyer as a significant source of savings.
I opened Excel on my PC and started to plan, setting my weekly budget at $125 for five dinners for my family. I then started to plan our dinners around what was on special at my store, focusing on the healthy proteins and produce items in the flyer:
- First, the main meals were planned based on the major proteins on sale. Typically, this is the most expensive part of your grocery bill and, therefore, formed the basis for the start of the plan. For instance, if chicken breast, salmon, and pork tenderloin were on sale, our main meals were with recipes for those proteins.
- The sides were also selected under this same formula, so if broccoli and asparagus were on sale, those were incorporated into the plan, whether as a side or as part of the main meal.
- Lastly, the dairy and grocery items on sale were also brought into the plan when it made sense. My goal was to make use of as many specials as possible, eat really well, and save money at the same time.
- Also, pulling your sides and veggies from the on sale produce items means you are most likely taking advantage of seasonal produce.
How big of an impact did the sales flyer have? A ton. After The Dinner Daily came to be, our team quantified the savings. We shopped our list of ingredients for a week’s worth of meals at our local grocery stores when a large percentage of the items on the shopping list were on sale, and then again when they were not. The results were exciting! When the items on the list were not on sale, the cost of that exact same list of ingredients was 20 to 25% more.
The dollar impact of the sales flyer: ~$1950 savings per year or $150 per month.
To put this in the context of real dollars, a $150 weekly grocery trip when a majority of the items were on special would cost $187.50 for the exact same cart of ingredients, a savings of $37.50 for that one weekly shopping trip. And if you extend that savings out to an entire month it equates to $150 in savings and an entire year is $1950!!
The power of the sales flyer is real!
Step #3: Create an Organized and Detailed Shopping list (and stick to it)
With my meal plan for the week in place (from Steps #1 and #2), I then created my grocery list. And this is not just ingredients randomly jotted down on a piece of paper. Four key components of the list helped me save money and made shopping faster.
- It was organized by department (that’s an obvious one)
- It noted the items on special and specific brands, so I did not miss them in the store. This also made shopping quicker.
- I noted the exact quantity I needed for this week’s recipe so I did not overbuy or overspend, a significant culprit in costly food waste.
- I also included a “Stock Up” section for any items I noted in the flyer we used frequently. Note: I kept this section limited to things we use all the time (i.e., olive oil). The goal is to limit spending to only those items you know you will use in the short term. This makes shopping easier and saves you money.
An organized grocery list with all the supporting details is a major tool in your arsenal for saving money on groceries. Instead of buying random ingredients that you may or may not need, or worse, trying to follow the ingredient lists from multiple recipes on your phone or paper while pushing a cart, you will buy the right quantities at the right time for this week’s meals. The list will also keep you focused in the store, saving you a ton of time.
And all of the above still holds true if you are shopping online. If you know what you need, it will be far faster and easier to add what you need to your cart without the need to scroll through an endless list of ingredients, figuring it out as you go.
If you are serious about saving money on your grocery bill, ensure you have your list in hand before entering the store!!
Step #4: Leverage Your Local Convenience Stores
This step might have surprised you since local convenience stores typically charge more for items than grocery stores. However, hear me out.
If I ran out of milk or another essential during the week, when at all possible I would buy these items at my local convenience store instead of venturing into the grocery store. Why? To limit those budget-killing mid week grocery runs that inevitably cost more than the gallon of milk or loaf of bread that brought me to the store in the first place. This approach curbs impulse spending and prevents that $4 milk purchase from snowballing into a $40 spend on unnecessary items you pick up on the way to and from the milk case!
Step #5: Make a Few Simple Staples at Home
When I used to read these tips before the days of meal planning, I would think it would be too much work, I was too busy, and I would just buy it instead.
However, as part of this new quest to save money on groceries and make dinner easier, I was willing to revisit this. I started with a few simple salad dressings, marinades for the meat and fish, and homemade pasta sauce. While this might require a bit more time at first (doing it once a month is an excellent place to start), it has two major perks that make it worthwhile. For one, it is healthier. By making your own, you can sidestep artificial ingredients and unhealthy components prevalent in many store-bought alternatives. If you have any allergies to contend with, you can also ensure you only use safe ingredients for your family.
Two, making these staples yourself will cost a fraction of what the store bought alternative cost. The salad dressing we mostly use (olive oil, fresh lemon juice, balsamic, oregano, and crushed garlic) costs very little, and our whole family loves it. Also, since I have those items in my kitchen almost always, we never are stuck with an empty bottle of salad dressing…I can always make a batch if needed in a couple of minutes.
If you are inspired to try this and want some easy recipes to get started, check out our free Resource Guide on our home page here.
Step #6: “Coupon” with Purpose
Once I had the list, I knew what I needed for the week. For one final push to increase the savings, I searched for online coupons for items I would buy that week. If it wasn’t on the list, I didn’t use it.
Leveraging coupons – whether sourced online or from your store – becomes a savvy move when exclusively applied to items already on your list. While this step might require extra effort, the cumulative savings can be significant over the month. Remember, the goal is to eat well while economizing.
Step #7: Assign the Right Meal to the Right Day
Although this tip for saving money on groceries is not as direct as the others, it is still worth mentioning since it can make your weeknight dinners go more smoothly and also help minimize food waste.
As one final step, I would look at our calendar for the week and consider what everyone’s schedule looked like. What nights did my sons have hockey practice? Did I need to be in the car during dinner time at all? Did my husband or I have a hectic or longer than usual work day coming up? All this was considered when I slotted each meal to a specific day. My make-ahead meal on my plan was assigned to hockey practice nights, my “put in the oven and forget it” dinner was given to my most challenging workday, and for days when I would be home, I would assign the recipe that might take a bit more time.
By assigning the meals to the suitable days for your schedule, you set yourself up for success and minimize the mental load of having to figure it all out when you are tired or low on energy. You also ensure that you won’t give in to grabbing the pizza at the last minute since the remaining meal of the week that you had planned for tonight would be too hard to make, given you would be on carpool duty at 6 pm. Align It might seem like a subtle thing, but after perfecting my dinner planning routine over many years, I can tell you this small little step can be the difference between a healthy meal at home vs. one from the drive thru.
So, in summary, the seven steps I used to save $347 in groceries in one month:
- Plan meals in advance for the whole week (don’t skip this step!)
- Incorporate Your Store’s Sales Flyer into Your Plan
- Organize Your List and Only Buy for Your Short-term Needs
- Use Your Local Convenience Store
- Make Your Own Staples
- Use Coupons When Only When it Makes Sense
- Align Meals with your Daily Schedule
By adhering to these six strategies, I managed to reduce my grocery expenses by a remarkable $347 in just one month. These tactics are designed with busy people in mind, providing practical and friendly approaches to saving money without compromising the quality of your meals. Whether you’re a seasoned budget enthusiast or just beginning to focus on being smarter about your spending, incorporating these strategies can pave the way for saving money on groceries and making dinner easier at the same time.
If you need help getting started:
And if you want some help, you can always use our Dinner Daily personalized meal planning service to give you some inspiration…the first two weeks are completely free!